“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner

If you had not used Ms. Lovecraft’s text as the basis for our novel, Fires on the Sea would have languished as unknown as its first authoress. What a loss to us all that would have been!
—Esther M. Friesner, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” in Cthulhu 2000 (1991) 244

The initial premise of “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is designed to knock the steadfast and serious fan of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos off their rocker: what if one of H. P. Lovecraft’s manuscripts was being re-written and published as a contemporary romance novel, trashy cover and sex scenes and all? For a writer whom many fans had raised up on a pedestal, both in real life and in fiction, the juxtaposition of tone and genres is designed to raise hackles. Then when the knife is firmly inserted, Esther M. Friesner starts to twist it just enough to tickle the funnybone…

There is a fine line between a reference and an in-joke. Readers intimately familiar with the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft recognize the reference in the title to “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, and that recognition preps the reader for the story: it helps to establish the world. In-jokes are similar in that they are never explained to the reader; either they get them or they do not. The elaborate riffing on Gnophkehs in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price is an in-joke, only really comprehensible to someone aware of the fan-scholar debate on the subject. While it contains a lot of clever wordplay and humorous imagery and characterization, “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” is built on Mythos in-jokes, from by-the-way references to various Mythos stories to a groaner of a knock-knock joke from a gang of shoggoths. Yet there is a lot more at work in the story.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” blends fiction and reality: set in a contemporary (1990) world of cappucino machines and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but one where both Lovecraft and his literary creations such as Arkham both coexist. While the former is uncommon, the latter is very typical of a certain type of Mythos fiction. Lovecraft himself would drop references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith into stories like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu”; August Derleth would go Lovecraft one better by dropping in references to Lovecraft and the Arkham House collection of his tales next to the Necronomicon. Derleth was not doing this tongue-in-cheek, he was building an idea that Lovecraft had based some of his tales on reality—an idea revisited by later authors such as Robert Bloch in his novel Strange Aeons (1978) and Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence (2015-2017). Where other authors use that as a jumping-off point to reflect on, revisit, or revise Lovecraft’s fiction, Friesner does it to underline the silliness of the premise, to take off the kid gloves and show nothing is off-limits.

If the gloves are off for Lovecraft, Friesner also isn’t worried about bloodying her knuckles against the cut-throat world of book contracts, agents, and editors, and the whole innate silliness of the romance industry. Most of the jokes made are at the expense of Robin Pennyworth, the sole male reader in a female-dominated book publisher. His awareness of his failure to meet up to 1980s expectations of masculine attitude and behavior, reminiscent (if not so focused on homophobia) of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg, is meat for his domineering boss Marybeth Conran, who is quick with a cutting remark like:

If everything Chuckie Ward tells me is true, she’s led a life of such isolation that when you stumbled into her life, no wonder she mistook you for a man.

Sarah Pickman, the object of Robin’s amour and the co-author of Fires of the Sea, is portrayed far more positively than Conranwhose only goal is to rule her department with an iron fist and bind the writers with the worst possible contracts. In many subtle ways, Friesner plays up her parallels with her supposed ancestor H. P. Lovecraftreclusive nature, thriftiness, and the invitation by a romantic partner to New York City all being obvious homages to Lovecraft’s nature and biography.

So too, Friesner has put some effort into the references to the romance novel itself, alluding to characters and scenes that would be appropriate if Lovecraft himself had written an Innsmouth-based romance novel…which does beg the question of whether or not she was aware of previous efforts in this direction. Robert M. Price, writing as “Sally Theobald” (a play on one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms) published an eldritch confessional-style yarn titled “I Wore The Brassiere of Doom” (1986); Brian McNaughton, writing as “Sheena Clayton” had written an Innsmouth-based erotic/romance novel titled Tides of Desire (1983). Price, like Friesner, focused on the silliness of the serious and asexual Lovecraft trying his hand at such an unfamiliar genre; McNaughton was aiming less at humor and more at a serious erotic paranormal romance work (although he was a couple decades early for that particular genre). Both ideas have bones: Edward Lee would revisit the idea of Lovecraft maintaining a sideline in erotic fiction with Trolley No. 1852 (2009)while Friesner was playing the idea for laughs, in the long run it looks like there’s at least some market for those kind of materials.

The topicality of the story might make it something less than classic; its references to late-80s American culture are already dated nearly three decades after its original publication, such as the final whopper:

[…] while I looked and looked for mention of a pace-name you use, consulting the Britannica and the geographical listings in the Unabridged, it only shows up a an adjective. It sounds so familiar. I think I may have heard of a Trump resort located there, but correct me if I’m wrong.

Where is Stygia?

This is at least a more subtle insertion of a Trump reference into Lovecraftiana than Trump Vs. Cthulhu: Two Small Hands, One Big Problem (2018), and is actually a very clever final in-joke referencing the works of Robert E. Howard (who, along with Clark Ashton Smith, get nods in the story). Lovecraft had written in a letter:

There is no such name as Stygia … the adjective Stygian being derived from the name Styx—the River of the Dead. Two-Gun Bob misuses the word-root when he speaks of a country called “Stygia”. Indeed, he takes frequent & unwarranted liberties with classical names ( or variants of names) in devising a nomenclature for his prehistoric world. Price & I have laboured with him in vain on that point.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 28 Sep 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 290

This is Friesner showing her homework and giving the knife one last little twist, this time to Robert E. Howard fans, although her subtle references to Red Sonja owe more to the Marvel comic books or the 1985 film than anything Ms. Cromwell (er, Robert E. Howard) ever wrote.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” was first published in World Fantasy Convention 1990: An H.P. Lovecraft Centenary Celebration (1990), and reprinted in Friesner’s collection It’s Been Fun (1991), the anthologies Cthulhu 2000 (1995) and Cthulhu and the Coeds, or, Kids & Squids (2000); it has also been translated into French as “L’amour est une indicible purulence” and published in Fées & gestes (1998). Her story “The Shunned Trailer” was published in The Cackle of Cthulhu (2018).

“Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon

Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. This terror is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

Of Herburt East, who was my lover in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme arousal tinged with terror. This fear-tainted arousal is not due altogether to the sinister manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than seventeen years ago, when we were in the third year of our course at the Peniskatonic University Medical School in Jerkham. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly; no less also did our two lean masculine bodies entwined in illicit passion, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the lust is less blinding, and the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—Lula Lisbon (“D. P. Lustcraft”), “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (emphasis mine)

Of Kanye West, who was my friend in college and after he dropped out, I can speak only with extreme sadness. This dysphoria is not due altogether to the sickening manner of his recent disappearance, but was engendered by the whole nature of his life-work, and first gained its acute form more than twenty years ago, when we were in the first year of our course at the Chicago State University in Illinois. While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his musical experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. (Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.) Now that we are no longer friends and the spell is broken, my side of the story can finally be told. The actual pain is far greater now than it was then. Memories and possibilities are ever more melancholic than the realities.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

While many writers have attempted to pastiche or parody the work of H. P. Lovecraft, few writers have gone so far as to take advantage of the fact that many of Lovecraft’s works are in the public domain, so as to directly rewrite, add on to, and edit his text in such a way as to create a new and original work of fiction. Joshua Chaplinsky’s Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) and Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) both take as their source text Lovecraft’s early serial “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922), but are set in widely different genres, and the artistic choices that the two writers reflect interestingly both on what they are writing, and how they choose to interpret Lovecraft’s original work.

Chaplinsky’s take on the concept is of a literary mashup, echoing efforts like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The success of the story lies in the careful attention to detail, weaving factual elements of Kanye’s life and attitude into Lovecraft’s prose while keeping the exuberance and hyperbole of both. Kanye West really did drop out of Chicago State University to pursue his music career, so reflecting that aspect of his life in place of Herbert West’s attendance at medical school is both accurate and requires changes to the narrative—but just as much of Kanye’s life is twisted to more closely resemble Herbert’s, the key change being when Kanye decides to use his music to reanimate the dead. The fun of the story is not just in the pastiche of Lovecraft’s prose or the parody of Kanye’s antics, but those occasional perfect moments when the two blend together:

To the vanished Herbert West and to me the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when West muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, it wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

To the vanished Kanye West and I the disgust and horror were supreme. I shudder tonight as I think of it; shudder even more than I did that morning when Kanye muttered through his bandages, “Damn it, the track wasn’t quite fresh enough!”
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

Where Kanye requires grafting on considerable material to the original, Lula Lisbon’s homoerotic re-visioning of Lovecraft’s story requires a shift in genre as well as tone. Where Chaplinsky seeks to draw fiction and reality closer together, so the two Wests’ paths coincide at key narrative moments, Lisbon seeks to inject the erotic into the horror narrative—and the key device by which she accomplishes this takes a decidedly more mystical bent:

He revealed to me one night that through his sizable member coursed a most rare and precious gift: his semen was a re-animating solution, blessed through an incident in which a love-smitten demi-goddess had granted an ancestor the power of bestowing immortal life by way of his seed.
—Lula Lisbon, “Herburt East: Refuckinator”

Like many erotic parodies, the focus of this text is often the insertion of an erotic scene not included in the original. This is a practice of some long standing, with examples in the horror literature genre including The Adult Version of Dracula (1970) and The Adult Version of Frankenstein (1970), both by Hal Kantor. Part of the skill of the author is in how these scenes are woven into the narrative; whereas Kanye replaces Herbert West, and the narrative is basically his own retold in the frame of Lovecraft’s prose, Herburt East follows substantially the same plot, only with many homoerotic additions.

Both texts take the opportunity to play on the outrageousness of the original, which is itself a kind of parody of the lurid supernatural thrillers of the period, and written by Lovecraft strictly as a potboiler:

In this enforced, laboured, & artificial sort of composition there is nothing of art or natural gracefulness; for of necessity there must be a superfluity of strainings & repetitions in order to make each history compleat. My sole inducement is the monetary reward […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 7 Oct 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 219

The serial nature of “Herbert West” possibly makes it more attractive for parody, as the story is broken into distinct episodes which permit changes of scene and characters and keeps up the narrative pace. Certainly both authors were at pains to keep the character of both of the chapter openings and closing—and perhaps surprisingly, both kept in versions of what is probably the most problematic scene in Lovecraft’s story.

The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”

Few of Lovecraft’s stories have black characters, and this is arguably his most racist depiction of an African-American character, emphasizing the prejudice of the day that black people were quite literally lower on the scale of evolution, closer to apes and gorillas. That such depiction were not uncommon in pulp fiction, such as in Seabury Quinn’s “The Drums of Damballah” (1930) does not excuse it here. The description does serve two important narrative points. The first is to emphasize the physical power of the character, the second is to emphasize the racial prejudice of the unnamed narrator. One of the key moments of this episode in “Herbert West” is that the narrator and West try their reanimation fluid on it an “it was wholly unresponsive to every solution we injected in its black arm; solutions prepared from experience with white specimens only”—in other words, they assume a biological difference in race to be at fault. However, they later discover that the reanimation serum did work (ironically, given Lovecraft’s sentiments in his letters, proving that there is no biochemical difference between white and black people)…but that the subject had also devolved into cannibalism (violence being characteristic of the reanimated, regardless of race).

Lisbon preserves most of Lovecraft’s original text for this episode, with the main interjection being an extended erotic scene between West and the narrator: she chooses to focus on the “fire all six shots of a revolver” from the opening of the episode and counterbalance it with sex ejaculations. Chaplinsky’s take is more baroque; although he retains a surprising amount of the original text, the black boxer is replaced with Biggie Smalls. Both of them retain, substantially unchanged, the final visual of the episode.

For that visitor was neither Italian nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a glassy-eyed, ink-black apparition nearly on all fours, covered with bits of mould, leaves, and vines, foul with caked blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator”
(text identical in Lula Lisbon’s “Herburt East: Refuckinator”)

For that visitor was neither forgetful employee nor policeman. Looming hideously against the spectral moon was a gigantic misshapen thing not to be imagined save in nightmares—a bug-eyed, ash-grey apparition, covered with sewage and fecal matter and caked with blood, and having between its glistening teeth a snow-white, terrible, cylindrical object terminating in a tiny hand.
—Joshua Chaplinsky, Kanye West—Reanimator (emphasis mine)

The repetition of the text is an acknowledgement of the importance of this specific scene, that Lovecraft had captured a powerful visual in the horrible evidence of cannibalism (it being remembered that this was long before zombies craved the flesh of the living in popular fiction). The differences too are telling: in Lovecraft’s original story, there is implicit bias against the ethnic Italians whose child is kidnapped and eaten; Chaplinsky replaces them with studio assistants, which is in its own way a comment (whether intentional or not) on the attitudes toward the lowest-paid members of the production process. Lisbon’s leaving these elements unaddressed feels like a missed opportunity to address some of the subtext or context in Lovecraft’s work—but that may simply be because she was focusing on other aspects.

One aspect that both Chaplinsky and Lisbon both address is the idea of a homosexual reading or subtext to Lovecraft’s original work. “Herbert West” involves the eponymous mad scientist partnered for considerable periods with an unnamed but presumably male associate who narrates the text; this is in a way a direct parallel in many ways to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler Dr. Watson, and their strong homosocial bond is reflected in several of Lovecraft’s other works, such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Hound.” Yet to contemporary audiences, such close friendships between men are often misconstrued as having homosexual connotations, as was discussed in “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg. Chaplinsky chooses to address this aspect up front, writing in the first paragraph:

Some would say too close. There was much speculation regarding the nature of our partnership, but Kanye was a very private person and I didn’t dare betray his confidence.

This is neither a confirmation nor a denial, but an aspect of Kanye and the narrator’s relationship which he plays with throughout the story, letting the readers choose how to interpret certain scenes while never explicitly confirming or denying Kanye’s sexual preferences or whether their relationship is intimate. Lisbon chooses to emphasize and make explicit the homoerotic relationship between East and the narrator, and strives to capitalize on aspects of Lovecraft’s text which highlight the intimacy of their relationship. Other writers have made similar, if less overtly erotic, interpretations of Lovecraft’s relationships—The Chronicles of Dr. Herbert West comic book written by Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco has the narrator as a woman, in a romantic relationship with West; “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan similarly makes a female of one of the two male characters from “The Hound.”

Neither Lisbon or Chaplinsky were looking to supplant or provide another episode to an existing work, but to re-imagine that work for their own ends, and as far as those aims go, they both succeeded. Lisbon’s expansion of Lovecraft’s narrative is played for laughs as much as titillation, and veers toward the campier end of homoerotic Lovecraftian horror narratives, something in the vein of David J. West. Chaplinsky’s narrative is much more ambitious, but also ultimately much more period-driven: one day, Kanye will die (though probably not by being decapitated by a reanimated Jay-Z), and his star will fade so that the clever pop-culture references will fade.

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I

One of the critical attractions of Lovecraft’s work is being in the public domain, where anyone can play with the material. For most pasticheurs and parodists, this does not mean literally rewriting Lovecraft’s plots or recycling large sections of his text—but those are valid creative approaches to the material, and should be understood and appreciated as such. These variations-on-the-text are as much a part of keeping Lovecraft’s work alive and relevant in the present day as any other.

Erotica author Lula Lisbon originally published the episodes of Herburt East under the name “D. P. Lustcraft”, the complete ebook of “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) is still available for sale, although Lisbon appears not to have published anything since 2015.

Joshua Chaplinsky originally published Kanye West—Reanimator through Yolo House in 2015. He has since slightly revised and expanded the book, adding a foreword and the story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep in Redhook, Brooklyn” in Kanye West—Reanimator: the Re-Reanimated Edition (2018).

“Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg

The two of them had been journeying across the interminable parched wastes of the Outback for many days now—how many, not even the Elder Gods could tell. They were ambassadors, these two: Their Excellencies Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft of the Kingdom of New Holy His Diabolic England, envoys of his Britannic Majesty Henry VIII to the court of Prester John.
—Robert Silverberg, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” in Rebels in Hell (1986) 79

Even before he was dead and could not offer any protest, H. P. Lovecraft was represented as a fictionalized version of himself in Robert Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales Sep 1935). Lovecraft even gave his friend permission to kill him off in the story, and returned the favor by killing off a fictional Bloch in “The Haunter of the Dark” (Weird Tales Dec 1935). This began a literary tradition of using Lovecraft and his friends and contemporaries a fictional characters, which continues to this day.

The genre varies from weird fiction like Fritz Leiber’s “To Arkham and the Stars” (1966) to historical fiction such as Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004) to erotic horror including Edward Lee’s Trolley No. 1852 (2009), but what all of these stories have in common is that the characterization of Lovecraft is informed by what is known of his life and thought, and the same is true for the other historical personages. Robert E. Howard, for example, appears in both Richard Lupoff’s novel Lovecraft’s Book (1985), Rick McCollum’s Ashley Dust (1994), David Barbour’s Shadow’s Bend (2000), and Robert Silverberg’s novella “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986).

The story takes place in the Heroes in Hell shared universe; a series of anthologies such as the Man-Kzin Wars and Thieves’ World where multiple authors write stories in a common setting, usually sticking to their own characters but collaborating to a degree on the development of the common background, and possibly referencing each other’s additions and the events in their stories. The whole concept is similar to how comic book shared universes work, and of course is a somewhat more structured and organized version of how the Cthulhu Mythos came to be. In Heroes in Hell, all the great figures of history go to their infernal rest—so that Cleopatra, Machiavelli, Benito Mussolini, Che Guevara, et al. can all interact. The device which allows the meeting of disparate historical figures is the crucial attraction of the setting, and Silverberg takes advantage of this in his story by having Gilgamesh meet H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

The attraction of placing Lovecraft and Howard together is in large part because they were friends during the 1930s, and experienced a publication boom in the 60s and 70s as their work was printed and reprinted in affordable paperbacks. Though they never met, they carried on an extensive correspondence, much of which has survived and which saw publication, starting with some of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard in the Selected Letters from Arkham House during the 1960s and then more in fanzines, small scholarly journals, and other publications until the full correspondence was finally published as A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in 2009.

In addition to their published letters and fiction, both Lovecraft and Howard received scholarly attention which was largely lacking for their fellow pulp writers—at the time Silverberg was writing “Gilgamesh in the Outback,” he could draw on two biographies written by L. Sprague de Camp: Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) and Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983, written with Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin). While these biographies were often the standard work on their subjects for several years, both books faced considerable criticism for de Camp’s treatment of his subjects, which often involved a kind of post mortem psychoanalysis. Nor was de Camp alone in such questionable assessments of his subjects:

The article [“The Psychological Conan” by John Strnad] goes in for all the superficial, mechanical application of static psychoanalytic labels, without any dynamic clinical evidence: Conan’s broadsword is, of course, a “standard phallic symbol”, his armor is “an extensive erogenous zone”, he is alleged to suffer from an unconscious “not resolved castration complex”, his attitude towards his companions and women shows “tendencies toward homosexuality”. his investigating and exploring of tombs and secret passages shows a “desire for heterosexual relations.”

Psychoanalysis of living people and of literary figures requires not the labeling with Freudian terms but an interpretation based on concrete data. This article represents a misunderstanding of both psychoanalysis and Conan. Howard and Conan deserves better.
—Frederic Wertham, Amra vol. 2, no. 58 (1973), 12

Other writers did not mince words; Harry Harrison in Great Balls of Fire! An Illustrated History of Sex and Science Fiction (1977) included an entire chapter titled “Is Conan Dating Clark Kent?” and states boldly:

Howard did identify with his hero, Conan, and admitted as much many times. […] I find it hard to agree when [Wertham] insists that this was all done consciously by the author. Conan is a crypto-homosexual and the entire school of sword-and-sorcery reflects this fact. (85)

These particular impressions of Robert E. Howard and his creation Conan, often seen as an alter ego, are important because they provide the context within which Silverberg operated and would have understood the basis for the character he was creating. So as the two pulpsters-turned-ambassadors drive through Hell in a Land Rover, they stop and encounter Gilgamesh—to who Howard has a peculiar reaction:

“By Crom,” he muttered, staring at the giant. “Surely this is Conan of Aquilonia and none other!” He was trembling. He took a lurching step toward the huge man, holding out both his hands in a strange gesture—submission, was it? “Lord Conan?” Howard murmured. “Great king, is it you? Conan? Conan?” And before Lovecraft’s astounded eyes Howard fell to his knees next to the dying beast, and looked up with awe and something like rapture in his eyes at the towering huntsman.
—Robert Silverberg, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” in Rebels in Hell 84

Gilgamesh is, as the title suggests, the main protagonist and focus of Silverberg’s novella. In choosing the most ancient hero in literature, Silverberg can set Gilgamesh in contrast to all the more recent dead celebrities, letting the king of Uruk express a very different take on death, damnation…and homosocial attitudes. Gilgamesh greatly misses the company of his “brother” Enkidu, a relationship which is presented as strictly non-sexual but also fundamental to both men. It is paralleled, in a way, with the friendship of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard—but the latter’s response to Gilgamesh reveals a strange twist in Silverberg’s characterization of Conan’s creator.

Howard’s initial mistake of Gilgamesh for Howard’s own fictional creation Conan the Cimmerian, and the continuing response of Howard to Gilgamesh, highlight some of the sexual interpretations of the Texas pulpster as they existed at the time—and give Silverberg the opportunity to expressly state that Gilgamesh of Uruk is not a homosexual:

And that glow in the fellow’s eyes—what sort of look was that? A look of adoration, almost the sort of look a woman might give a man when she has decided to yield herself utterly to his will.

Gilgamesh had seen such looks aplenty in his day, from women and men both; and he had welcomed them from women, but never from a man. He scowled. What does he think I am? Does he think, as so many have wrongly thought, that because I loved Enkidu with so great a love that I am a man who will embrace a man in the fashion of men and women? Because it was not so. Not even here in Hell is it so, said Gilgamesh to himself. Nor will it ever be. (92)

As Robert E. Howard’s comes face-to-face with an individual that is in many ways the archetype of his most famous hero, he reacts as a fanboy might—and Gilgamesh completely fails to understand the hero-worship for what it is, mistaking it for sexual interest. The strenuousness of the denial, and Gilgamesh’s gauging of Howard’s reaction, both speak to the sexual psychology of the day. Gilgamesh is expressing an attitude of 80s machismo, and the subject of his objections is the creator of a genre of American fantasy which Harry Harrison accused of “crypto-homosexuality” because it commonly glorified the male form—as exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s casting in the lead of Conan the Barbarian (1982) and the half-naked, muscled figures that dominated Frank Frazetta’s covers of the Conan paperbacks.

Lovecraft, by contrast, plays the straight man (except when he in is turn is allowed a few moments of exuberance). Gilgamesh’s analysis of him, expressed later, jives strongly with interpretations of Lovecraft in the 80s:

[…] he is weirdly remote and austere, is apparently quite as crazy, but he too give the impression of being at war with himself, int error of allowing any sort of real human feeling to break through the elaborate facade of his mannerisms. The poor fools must have been scared silly when the serving -girls started tripping them and pouring warm milk over them and stroking their bodies. (122)

The creator of Cthulhu’s composure balances out Howard’s burst of eccentricity, and within a few pages everyone is set straight regarding the small error of identity. This does, however, give Howard time for a bit of introspection:

But this other business—this sudden bewildering urge to throw himself at the giant’s feet, to be wept up in his arms, to be crushed in a fierce embrace—

What was that? Where had that come from? By the blazing Heart of Ahriman, what could it mean? (98)

If Gilgamesh’s reaction to the idea of being the subject of homosexual attraction is an expression of 80s masculinity; Howard’s own confusion at feeling homosexual attraction is in turn an expression of a kind of crisis of masculinity verging on homosexual panic. Silverberg’s interpretation of Howard’s character was reinforced by borrowing an episode from Robert E. Howard’s 5 Sep 1928 letter to his friend Harold Preece, as well as referencing other details from Howard’s published correspondence and the sometimes erroneous scholarship. When Silverberg writes:

The desire of men for men was a mark of decadence, of the decline of civilization. He was a man of the frontier, not some feeble limp-wristed sodomite who reveled in filth and wanton evil. If he had never in his short life known a woman’s love, it was for lack of opportunity, not out of a preference for that other shameful kind. (99)

He is not directly quoting any particular passage from Howard’s writings; though the pulpster would write of “decadence,” he never spoke directly of male homosexuality in his published letters. The idea that Howard died a virgin is an idea promoted in de Camp’s biography:

While it is not impossible that, on some unaccompanied visit to Brownwood, his friends there took him to “Sal’s House,” as one of the the three local whorehouses was called, the weight of such evidence as we have makes it more than likely that he died without ever having enjoyed the pleasures of sex.
Dark Valley Destiny 140

While Howard never explicitly mentions any sexual encounter in his letters (and why would he?), there is circumstantial evidence to suggest he did in fact make use of prostitutes, so the de Camps were likely wrong on that score—but the facts of the matter are less important than the context: Silverberg, based on the then-current scholarship, was trying his best to build the character of Howard for his story.

Between Gilgamesh’s reaction and Howard’s, the portrayal of homosexuality in the story is not a positive one. It is rather the spectre of homosexuality which haunts the characters in this story, and Gilgamesh and Howard alternately deny and deride it in their internal monologues. For men so concerned with their masculine identities, the prospect of not being or being perceived as strictly heterosexual is a considerably upsetting prospect to both men—and Howard for his part immediately works to suppress these unfamiliar emotions, falling straight into the Kübler-Ross model.

While the characterization of homosexuality and masculinity might strike many contemporary readers as awkward or regressive, it is probably more accurate to say that it was period-appropriate. Silverberg has, throughout a long career in science fiction, addressed issues of gender and homosexuality in many different stories, notably Son of Man (1971), and popular attitudes on homosexuality have shifted dramatically over the course of his writing career. “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is an artifact of how homosexuality and masculinity were viewed in the 1980s, and this is very much expressed in the finale:

She-it, Howard though. A man don’t cry. Especially in front of other men.

He turned away, into the wind, so Lovecraft could not see his face.

“Bob? Bob?”

She-it, Howard thought again. And he let the tears come.  (137)

The fragile masculinity expressed by the statement that “a man don’t cry” is as close to the the fundamental philosophy of Silverberg’s story as anything else. Is Howard-the-character not a man just because he lets out a few tears? Is he less of a man for having felt an homoerotic attraction to Gilgamesh?

To say that this is a story about men and of men is accurate: aside from a few unnamed handmaidens, there are no female characters that appear on the page, though Queen Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn are mentioned, they are not present. All of the major and minor characters are men, and this story is about their relationships with each other. It is a story fundamentally steeped in men desiring the friendship of other men, but profoundly uncomfortable and unwilling to consider the implications of a sexual dimension to that friendship—not for any pressing religious reason (they’re already in hell), or any social more (nobody besides Gilgamesh or Howard ever bring homosexuality up), but simply as an internal struggle.

Readers might reflect on how the characters of Lovecraft, Howard, and the rest reflect on the real men that inspired them. As detailed in “Great Phallic Monoliths Lovecraft and Sexuality”, literary interpretations may be valid even if the facts don’t support them—readers upset that the Robert E. Howard of “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is a 1 instead of a 0 on the Kinsey Scale can be reassured that this is just fiction, and at that fiction based upon “scholarship” from 30-40 years ago which misapplied Freudian analysis. Readers that are open to the a less unilaterally heterosexual Howard are free to run with it. As far as the literary game goes, the characterization of historical persons is free game, so long as they remain identifiable to the audience and fit the needs of the story.

“Gilgamesh in the Outback” was first published in Rebels in Hell (1986) and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (July 1986); Silverberg won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1987. It was reprinted in The New Hugo Winners, Volume II (1992), Novel Ideas: Fantasy (2006), and The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six: Multiples 1983-1987 (2011). Silverberg wrote two sequels, “The Fascination of the Abomination” in Angels in Hell (1987) and “Gilgamesh in Uruk” in War in Hell (1988), which were later stripped of the Heroes in Hell-specific setting material combined into the novel To The Land of the Living (1989). Lovecraft and Howard do not appear in the later stories.

 

“Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr.

And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep”

Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors by noted Lovecraft scholar Kenneth W. Faig Jr. is very much in the vein of “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price in that it is a piece of fictional scholarship as much as anything else. The four stories in the collection are “what ifs?,” imagining chapters of Lovecraft’s life that could have been, as discovered some decades later by dedicated scholars like Faig. The stories are all generally plausible, and present less a “what might have been” than an alternate viewpoint on their subject—H. P. Lovecraft.

Not many now living will recall the Egyptian vogue of the eighteen-seventies…fifty years before King Tut and his curse fixed their hold upon the popular imagination…but a few of our older citizen will recall the famous Black or Nigger Hotep who held the audiences of at Olney’s Opera House spellbound with his Egyptian regalia and bizarre contraptions in those day. How Charles Wilson Hodap became the Black Hotep is a story which I cannot relate to you […]
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

The third tale recounts the discovery and tracking-down of biographical information of Charles Wilson Hodap, an African-American stage magician who performed under the title “Black Hotep,” with an Egyptian theme. The narrator is ostensibly David Parkes Boynton, a (fictional) very early and enthusiastic Lovecraft collector, but this is really a device of Faig’s. The narrative is primarily a combination of correspondence and interviews, with a little exposition mixed in. More than enough for readers to follow the chain of evidence as Boynton investigates whether it was this “Black Hotep” that inspired H. P. Lovecraft to create Nyarlathotep.

Nyarlathotep is one of Lovecraft’s most ambiguous creations. In the prose-poem “Nyarlathotep” and sonnet XXI of the “Fungi from Yuggoth,” Nyarlathotep is a kind of showman-prophet of doom; in “The Rats in the Walls” he is a “mad, faceless god” at Earth’s center; in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he is the “soul and messenger of the Outer Gods,” the crawling chaos; in “The Dreams in the Witch House” he is one with the Black Man of the Witch Cult; and he is mentioned in passing in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Mound,” and “The Last Test” as part of the Mythos. Other writers would expand considerably on Nyarlathotep, explaining away his varied appearances as avatars or “masks,” but the initial presentation that many readers receive of Nyarlathotep from Lovecraft’s stories is that of a dark-skinned man, at least when the crawling chaos is in human form:

And at the last from inner Egypt came
The strange dark One to whom the fellahs bowed;
Silent and lean and cryptically proud,
And wrapped in fabrics red as sunset flame.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Fungi From Yuggoth Sonnet XXI. Nyarlathotep”

Then down the wide lane betwixt the two columns a lone figure strode; a tall, slim figure with the young face of an antique Pharaoh, gay with prismatic robes and crowned with a golden pshent that glowed with inherent light. Close up to Carter strode that regal figure; whose proud carriage and swart features had in them the fascination of a dark god or fallen archangel, and around whose eyes there lurked the languid sparkle of capricious humour.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The evilly grinning beldame still clutched him, and beyond the table stood a figure he had never seen before—a tall, lean man of dead black colouration but without the slightest sign of negroid features; wholly devoid of either hair or beard, and wearing as his only garment a shapeless robe of some heavy black fabric. His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shod, since there was a clicking whenever he changed position. The man did not speak, and bore no trace of expression on his small, regular features.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

“Black” or “svart” in this context does not necessarily mean that Nyarlathotep’s human form took on the appearance of sub-Saharan African or African-American, and Lovecraft’s description in “The Dreams in the Witch House” in particular is explicitly not, and with the rest of the apparatus of the witch-cult inspired by Margaret Murray’The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), where the Devil is often described as appearing dressed in black clothing, and with cloven hooves; a “black man” connected with witchcraft also appears in Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which influenced Lovecraft.

Whether or not Nyarlathotep’s human appearance is “black” (or Arabic, or anything else) in the sense of race is largely irrelevant to the plot of the stories he appears in, though in the poems it adds an exotic element to his history, a suggestion of otherness. But when readers are aware of Lovecraft’s prejudice against black people, they may interpret the stories differently—and later writers and artists are forced to consider the issue of how to depict Nyarlathotep, and in human form that at least implicitly means discussing the physical features associated with race—even Lovecraft feels the need to specify the Black Man of the Witch Cult is “not Negroid.” Adding a racial dimension to the characterization means addressing racial prejudice. Is Nyarlathotep an example of Lovecraft’s racism?

Probably not—at least, there is no indication in Lovecraft’s letters that he ever intended such a characterization of the crawling chaos—but such issues must underlie and inform Faig’s narrative of Charles Wilson Hodap. Boynton detective work slowly unveils more information about the life of this African-American entertainer, and finally hit upon the crucial connection with a young, enthusiastic audience: a six-year old Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Here, Boynton believes he has found the inspiration for at least one of Lovecraft’s iconic creations: a hardworking, kindly black entertainer.

The conceit works to the extant that it is a neat solution; Faig, being the Lovecraft scholar her is, ties it in with Lovecraft’s life and the history of Providence. It is an ultimately believable and perhaps a touch mundane revelation, one which requires no grimoires or neuroses. The final pages detail a scholar’s best wishes for such a discovery, with articles published, associated materials related to Hodap’s life found and deposited with an appropriate library, and funds raised to place a proper marker on the graves of Hodap and his wife. It is as warm and fuzzy an ending as one might hope for in such a story.

The shadow of Lovecraft’s racism remains, hovering over the narrative, and the question to ask is: is Faig attempting to downplay or whitewash Lovecraft’s racism? Certainly he is playing with the idea that Nyarlathotep as conceived by a young Lovecraft was “black” in a racial sense. The text, aside from a couple incidents of “Nigger Hotep” is markedly limited in its depiction of period racism.

Accompanying the advertisement was a line drawing of Hotep himself, sketched against a background of a fantastic array of mirrors and strange-looking apparatus. Naked from the waist up, Hotep’s flesh was inked in the blackest ebony, forming a stark contrast with the white of the strange-looking turban which crowned his head and the loose, skirt-like garment which fell from his waist. From hi features, so far as I could tell from the drawing, I judged him to be a Negro of the purest Nubian type.
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

Young Lovecraft himself never appears on the page to give a personal opinion. The idea of a positive relationship with an African-American is probably out of context for most readers aware of Lovecraft’s prejudices, but not necessarily inaccurate to life. If it were true—if Black Hotep had existed and inspired Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep—would that change anything of the readers’ opinions of Lovecraft himself? Would it inform or influence how they viewed appearances of Nyarlathotep when they read his stories again, seeing the vaguely sinister figure in a more theatrical bent, like William Marshall in Blacula?

Without addressing these subjects directly, Faig’s tale is in many ways a reflection on the nature of Nyarlathotep, H. P. Lovecraft, and the readers’ relationship with both. Just as readers’ interpretation of Nyarlathotep can shift when they are aware of Lovecraft’s racism, so can readers be made to question that interpretation by presenting a kind of counter-example: a Lovecraft who instead of being afraid of black people, found inspiration in at least one black entertainer, whose legacy lives on through his work.

Of course, Charles Wilson Hodap never existed; Faig’s story is a work of fiction, and Lovecraft scholars have posited other origins for Nyarlathotep. Is this then a story of an alternate timeline, or an idealized timeline? This kind of biographical fiction focused around Lovecraft or other authors is its own kind of metafictional biography, perhaps best represented by works like Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004).

It does not seek to rewrite the past, exactly: the Lovecraft who encounters Faig’s Black Hotep is still presumably the Lovecraft that grows up to argue for the necessity of segregation and the biological inferiority of black people. Yet it present an example of an African-American that had a positive, and perhaps essential, effect on Lovecraft—and while that may not counterbalance everything Lovecraft wrote and said on the subject of race, it is difficult not to see it as inviting reflection along those lines.

The Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors were first published from 1979 to 1988 in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association. They were collected in a limited edition and published by Moshassuck Pres in 1989, and then revised and published by Necronomicon Press in 1995. Faig has published numerous other works about Lovecraft and the Mythos.

 

“The Challenge From Beyond” (1935) by C. L. Moore

Didn’t the F. F. [sic] “Challenge from Beyond” turn out well, considering? Yours was by far the best installment insofar as originality and workmanship are concerned. You had the hardest section, too—having to explain all the unconnected ramblings of your predecessors. Several of the installments, including mine, were carelessly written and loosely phrased, but yours, as usual, was a miracle of exact wording. And wasn’t it interesting to see how the personality of each writer colored his installment.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 87

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the most prominent female writers at Weird Tales during its heyday, a contemporary and correspondent to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others in “the circle,” who praised her fiction. Several of her stories have definite aspects reminiscent of the nascent Cthulhu Mythos: Moore’s “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) and Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (WT Sep 1933) both feature tentacled aliens who carnally assault their victims; the strange angles and dimensions of the  tunnel in the depths of Joiry Castle in “Black God’s Kiss” (WT Oct 1934) and “Black God’s Shadow” (WT Dec 1934) are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries. Moore was introduced to her future husband and writing-partner Henry Kuttner through Lovecraft, and Kuttner made his own contributions to the Mythos, such as the Book of Iod.

Moore never participated directly in the collaborative universe of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and others—made no addition to the library of eldritch titles, no strange god with an unspeakable name, there was no road from Joiry to Averoigne or Arkham, Hyboria or Hyperborea. Neither did Lovecraft or the others reference her fiction in their own works. This was not in itself exceptional—other writers in “the circle” chose not to participate, or participated only through collaboration, like E. Hoffmann Price, who together with Lovecraft wrote “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (WT Jul 1934), but who by himself never wrote a Mythos story, nor had any of his works referenced by his contemporaries in their Mythos stories. Moore was much the same; a colleague but not a co-conspirator… except for in one thing.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz, the teenage editor of the Fantasy Magazine; for the third anniversary issue of the fanzine, he had cooked up the idea of two round-robins, both titled “The Challenge from Beyond,” one being weird fiction and the other being science fiction. Schwartz successfully managed, after some effort and shake-ups, to attract a solid line-up for both; for the weird, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long each wrote a section, building on each other’s efforts. Moore started it off.

Julius Schwartz has inveigled me into one of these chain-story things in which you are also scheduled to be drawn. I wrote a first installment and mailed it to him on the 18th. Certainly not a brilliant thing by any means—it’s hard to get very brilliant in three pages, especially if they’re chiefly devoted to setting the stage—but the best I could think of just then If it comes to you next, as I think it will, perhaps you can do better on the second installment. If you want to be bothered.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 53

I hope you haven’t had too much trouble over your installment. Mr. Schwartz asked me to be as weird and original as possible in starting it out, and I was notably neither. At least there was a vast expanse of room for improvement as the story advanced. Frankly, if I’d been able to think up something strikingly weird and new  I wouldn’t have given the idea away for nothing. Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what the others have done with such a poor start.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 62

Self-effacing to a fault, Moore’s section of “The Challenge from Beyond” is despite her mea culpas perfectly competent. True, not much happens and there is no mention of fantastic monsters, evil sorcery, lost races, or aliens from another planet or dimension—but it manages to hint of otherness, and establishes tone, character, setting, and subject, staying true to the basic premise while providing an obvious hook for the next writer. For 857 unpaid words, that’s not bad—and while dwarfed by Lovecraft (2,542) and Howard’s (1,037) sections, it is the third-longest section overall.

But is it a contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos?

And yet—that writing. Man-made, surely, although its characters were unfamiliar save in their faint hinting at cuneiform shapes. Or could there, in a Paleozoic world, have been things with a written language who might have graven these cryptic wedges upon the quartz-enveloped disc he held? Or—might a thing like this have fallen meteor-like out of space into the unformed rock of a still molten world? Could it—
—C. L. Moore, “The Challenge from Beyond”

Moore’s section was followed by a rather generic entry by A. Merritt—and it was up to Lovecraft to tie together the elements from their respective sections and actually begin to weave a story out of the thing. In Lovecraft’s section, Moore’s queerly-marked cube becomes an alien artifact, mentioned in the Eltdown Shards—a Mythos tome created by his correspondent Richard F. Searight. This is essentially the single element that ties “The Challenge from Beyond” into the larger collaborative universe that Lovecraft and his contemporaries were creating.

Reaction to the story in the letters of Lovecraft et al. is fair, with most of the focus on the interplay between Lovecraft and Howard’s sections—the Lovecraft swapping the mind of Moore’s geologist with that of a sentient extraterrestrial worm on a distant world, and Howard deciding that said geologist rather liked being an alien worm, and developed a desire to conquer this new planet—but this amusing juxtaposition of style could never have taken place without Moore’s initial contribution.

Debating C. L. Moore’s place as one of the early contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos is a strange hair to try and split, though I have done it myself in discussing “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ. Moore wrote an idea, Lovecraft picked it up and ran with it, and any ties to his Mythos are through Lovecraft’s efforts. This was typical: Lovecraft’s previous collaborations with Anna Helen Croft, Winifred Virginia Jackson, his wife Sonia H. Greene, Clifford M. Eddy Jr., E. Hoffmann Price, R. H. Barlow, etc. had involved him expanding on the ideas of others, while adding his own. The difference here is that we know exactly where Moore’s prose ends and Lovecraft’s begins, because of the nature of the round-robin; in general collaborations, Lovecraft had a tendency to re-write much of the prose himself, muddying the issue of exactly how much each writer contributed in terms of pure wordcount and conception.

Whether or not you agree that Moore should be counted amid the co-creators of the Cthulhu Mythos, she was one of the peers in the circle of Weird Tales pulpsters, and she her contribution should not be neglected.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was first published in the Fantasy Magazine Sep 1935; it has been republished and recollected numerous times since then. It is out of copyright and may be read for free online.

“Hypothetical Materfamilias” (1994) by Adèle Olivia Gladwell

The eerie nostalgia of Gladwell’s enigma might have resonated in Lovecraft’s skull.
—Ramsey Campbell, introduction to The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraftian fiction tends to be fairly conservative in form. Pulp tales were designed for ready consumption, even if readers did occasionally have to reach for the dictionary, and the stories follow the lines of standard genre tales for the most part. The writers in the generations following Lovecraft & co. were not obligated to follow the same constraints for publication, but many fell back on conventional narrative structures, especially for homages and pastiches. Experimental Lovecraftian fiction remains rare.

The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H. P. Lovecraft (1994) 1639140-starry_wisdomwas an entire anthology of Lovecraftian fiction—Lovecraftian in the sense that many of the stories were about Lovecraft and his influence, not just embellishments on the Mythos, much of it experimental or at least unconventional. By luck or dint of effort, the anthology has proven surprisingly influential in the long term; Alan Moore’s “The Courtyard” went on to inspire several successful comics and graphic novels, and other noteworthy contributors include J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Grant Morrison. In addition to prose it contains John Coulthart’s classic adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu”, a graphic stories by James Havoc & Mike Phillbin and Rick Grimes, and three essays on the Lovecraftian occult. It was a groundbreaking, forward-looking collection of a very different kind of Lovecraftian fiction than the collections of reprints and pastiches that were being put forth by Chaosium at the time.

Adèle Olivia Gladwell is the only female author in the book.

“Hypothetical Materfamilias” is a non-traditional narrative, partaking of a stream-of-consciousness, but really it is the kind of half-poetic speech of ‘zines, underground comix, and white label remixes. Like a lot of experimental fiction, the nuance of the piece is less in a coherent account of a series of events than the feel and rhythm of the words, the emotions and associations evoked by the images they describe; weird phrases rise to the eye at random from what at first glance might be literary noise. Readers bring their own experience to such a piece which will color any interpretation, yet there is a story there, in the flow of words.

Lovecraft, from within a tableau of fastidious time, knows IT comes for him. IT keeps coming.

The focus of Gladwell’s piece is on IT—never named or defined, the story works around the definition of IT with the promise and portent that “IT comes. And you know IT comes for you.” The gist of the narrative is of death and birth, except played in in a kind of reverse, like watching a baby being born in rewind, disappearing back into its mother. An unbirthing portended and sometimes shrouded in symbolism, and focused on a male figure who is, by context, probably Lovecraft; the unnamed female figure that appears in italicized paragraphs might be his mother, the eponymous “hypothetical materfamilias” of the title; the author herself is “I,” the one writing the story, who breaks through occasionally to speak directly to the reader, and she is the medium through which the message is expressed. Identifications are necessarily vague—is IT death? Lovecraft? Cthulhu? Is IT knowable, in any sense, or is it defined by being undefinable?

Lovecraft is mentioned by name exactly three times in “Hypothetical Materfamilias,” and no other Mythos entities or architecture are mentioned explicitly by name: while some of the images and descriptions appear to coincide with elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, there are no direct references or allusions as in Tina L. Jens’ “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb.” This story is essentially as far as a work of Lovecraftian fiction can get away from being Cthulhu Mythos fiction; Joanna Russ’ “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket… But By God, Eliot, It Was A Photograph From Life!” would still be Lovecraftian in tone and content even if you removed any explicit reference to Lovecraft, but remove three words from “Hypothetical Materfamilias” and the piece isn’t “Lovecraftian” in the strictest sense.

Most Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction do not challenge the reader; they may play with uncomfortable scenes and concepts, but the communication of those images and ideas is usually couched in a very familiar narrative framework—the discovery of old family secrets, an exploration into the forbidden, an extraordinary event to be witnessed or explained—”Hypothetical Materfamilias” is more of an experience. It challenges the reader to question what they just read, to derive sense from it, to fit it into a rational framework; but the normal levers and handholds of Mythos fiction are absent here. There is little for the reader to grasp, save the three uses of Lovecraft, and those don’t help very much; a sift for themes and images will turn up similarities with other things Lovecraftian, but how much of these are a reflection of the writer’s intent versus the reader “reading in” to the text?

Gladwell’s few writing credits before this piece were entirely through Creation; it isn’t hard to see these as possible vanity publishing projects, and this represents her last known published work. While the piece meets the bare minimum for inclusion in the book by the triple invocation of “Lovecraft,” like calling forth Bloody Mary or the Candy Man, the lack of any real Mythos or Lovecraftian theme have probably doomed it to obscurity. All of which may be reasons why “Hypothetical Materfamilias” have failed to gain traction, besides the 1999 reprint of The Starry Wisdom.

Yet there is no work which is not due serious consideration—every writer starts and ends somewhere, every person has relationships. Every writer starts and ends somewhere, and every story has to be appreciated and judged on its own merits, and in its context. In this case, that means to consider Gladwell’s piece next to the rest of The Starry Wisdom anthology. In that context, “Hypothetical Materfamilias” fits rather well.

Many of the works are experimental or use a nontraditional narrative, not all of them refer directly or indirectly to Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos, most of the writers are not familiar names in Mythos anthologies, and few of the works have been republished. So in that respect at least, Gladwell’s story is of a piece with the rest of the anthology. It may not be an instant classic of Lovecraftian fiction like Coulthart’s graphic adaptation or Moore’s “The Courtyard,” and stands separate from the kind of borrowing and elaboration that marks much of Mythos fiction such as Robert M. Price’s “A Thousand Young” and Grant Morisson’s “Lovecraft in Heaven,” but it works fine as a standalone piece separate and outside of the usual Lovecraftian tradition, as an example that Lovecraftian fiction need not be constrained to familiar channels.